by Marc Downie, Shelley Eshkar, Paul Kaiser, and Jaroslaw Kapuscinski
In Linked Verse we find our unexpected way through scenes, motifs, and structures of Japan and the West. There’s a distinct sense of difference and otherness, but also of utter familiarity; of the old, but also the new; of time suspended, but also flying past.
Linked Verse gets both its name and its visual structure from the ancient Japanese poetic practice of renga: an apt form in many ways, not the least being that it is an intensely collaborative practice — just as our tight interweaving of music and image for this work has been.
In renga, two or more poets take turns in adding interlocking links in a long chain of unexpected associations that will constitute the poem. The first poet starts with three lines, to which the next poet adds two more to form a single self-contained stanza. However, those two added lines are now repeated to start the next stanza, completed with three lines contributed by the next poet, again forming a self-contained stanza that, crucially, makes a completely different kind of sense. And so the process continues, guided by rules and constraints (of season, of person, of theme) until the final duration of 36 or 100 stanzas is reached.
The sequences of Linked Verse are built up out of an invented visual renga that follows a similar AB-BC-CD pattern. Drawing on 3D captures we made in Tokyo and Kyoto in Japan and in their rough American counterparts, New York City and the Bay Area, we link our shots together by such simple visual properties as size, color, and texture, but also by point-of-view, direction, movement, and connotation. Since renga works to block all extended continuity, you never know where the next shot will lead, and you don’t know where you’ll end up until get there.
The music of Linked Verse also arises from an unexpected pairing of instruments — the shō, an ancient mouth organ customarily part of the gagaku court orchestra, and the cello, that most versatile of Western stringed instruments. This makes for a stark sense of difference, for the shō ‘s musical idiom is like nothing in the West. Its slow sounds shift color subtly with the modulated breath of the musician — it’s worth remembering that in gagaku music the unit of measure is breath not the metronome, and it prizes the timbral over the harmonic.
And yet the shō is unusual in being able to sustain up to six notes, which can bring it closer to the Western emphasis on harmony. For its part, the cello’s exceptional range allows the cellist to reach up and join the high notes of the shō. Of course the cellist’s fingering and bowing can also yield exceptional timbral variation at all ranges, matching the shō’s subtlety of color.
And so this pairing of instruments can make for unexpected similarity in addition to stark difference, allowing us to move as freely through musical worlds as we do through visual ones — or rather to move through the audiovisual web of the work, where we lose ourselves as we find the way.